Blog Post #2 for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – China’s Fragile Forests
Haze enveloped the mountains as our car pushed further up the steep valleys into northern Sichuan. The green hills that fluttered past our window were a patchwork of forests, cleared areas and fields of maize. The road wound through the vertiginous ravines as we climbed steadily higher, pushing further towards the small town of Pingwu, nestled deep in the mountains.
I was travelling with a delegation from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the EU-China Biodiversity Program (ECBP) whose aim was to visit a number of sites in northern Sichuan where they have been sponsoring projects. The goals of these projects are to promote sustainable harvesting as an alternative to the exploitation and unsustainable collection of the forest’s resources that has been occurring in the region for many decades.
“China is one of the world’s 12 mega-biodiversity countries, but during the past decades we have had amazing economic development, so we are facing serious problems of biodiversity loss,” explained the UNDP’s Lu Chunming as our car snaked up a hillside to the first of our intended sites.
“Although before we did much work on biodiversity conservation, we still have many problems. The most important one is that since the ECBP biodiversity conservation projects are still not mainstream thinking of government and also of local communities, this has caused a serious problem for sustainability. This means the project comes and they do their work and when the project ends, everything goes back to before. So one of the major targets of the ECBP projects is to mainstream biodiversity in China from central government to a local community level,” he said.
On the fringes of the Xuebaoding Nature Reserve in Pingwu County, we trek into the mountains to visit a small community that is being sponsored by ECBP. “The village traditionally collects traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but resources are damaged because of over-harvesting,” said Lu. “In 2008 they produced 500 kg of TCM for sale. In 2010, that had gone up to 10 tons.”
Approximately 75 percent of commercially harvested traditional Chinese medicine comes from the mountainous forests of the upper Yangtze region. It’s a vast harvest that generates over $10 billion in revenue each year and accounts for nearly 25 percent of China’s medical industry. As a result, over-harvesting to meet China rising demand for TCM, has damaged forest ecosystems in Sichuan.
This industry, however, plays a significant role in local people’s incomes, presenting the challenge of protecting forest ecosystems, promoting sustainable management and conservation of medicinal plants, while at the same time helping local people secure their livelihoods.
Encouraged by ECBP, the farmers in this small community in Pingwu County have now set up a local cooperative which enables them to communicate better with each other and track the harvests from the local forests through a centralized management center, allowing them to regulate amounts harvested.
Later in the week, we push further into the mountains, this time to visit projects promoting beekeeping and tea plantations. Both have the same aims as the TCM project–to promote the sustainable management of the local ecosystems–and are proving to be good examples of how locals in Sichuan can work with environmental NGO’s and local government to better protect the forest’s resources.
Challenges still remain as lucrative industries such as TCM and tea harvesting tempt over-exploitation, and old ways of thinking die hard. These are also just a few small projects in a vast province containing over 20 million people. The hope is that ECBP’s influence in central government filters down to the local level and is widely implemented across the region.
“It seems the local farmers place more emphasis on their livelihood improvement but they still have poor knowledge on biodiversity,” said Lu as he concluded his review of the project. “However, the community leaders and cooperative managers, they have good knowledge. So we hope that in the future, in some years, the idea of biodiversity can be more accepted and understood by the normal farmers.”
For the time being, these small pockets of communities remain in the minority, as over-harvesting of the forest’s resources in Sichuan continues to severely threaten these fragile ecosystems.